It hasn’t exactly been the easiest of days at the historical, mad, crazy Autodromo Nazionale Monza. The sun stayed hidden behind gloomy clouds and the track rendered slippery by a seemingly ceaseless downpour.
But it’s business as usual inside the Kawasaki Racing Team garage. The team has exactly one day to get a perfect set-up in place. The Qualifying is looming large, as is race day Sunday.
Tom Sykes is with his race engineer behind a black, temporary wall dividing the garage. We are scheduled for an interview. But I am not too sure if a sweaty, tired Tom in race leathers makes for an easy interview subject. Maybe I should wait. Let him change and grab something to drink.
The Kawasaki team coordinator, Silvia Sanchez echoes my thoughts. We agree that it may be better to interview Loris Baz, if he’s ready, so that Tom can get a little time to himself. Tom pops around into the work area, just as Silvia goes off in search of Baz.
He sticks his hand out, and with an easy smile asks if I am ready for the interview.
“Would you like to change first,” I ask.
“If it’s ok with you,” Tom says. It will take him 20 minutes.
I don’t mind, I say. I would rather have a relaxed Tom any day. But it isn’t to be. Loris isn’t ready yet. So, Tom grabs a drink and settles down at a large table bang in the centre of the work floor. His grin is genuine, I realize. He is really a nice guy. Though his beard does take getting used to.
How did the practice session go, I ask him. “Not too bad,” he says with a shrug. The morning has been strange. There are tyre issues, he says, but he made a big improvement on the last lap, so all in all, a good day. “We are still missing about 10 kilometres to the Aprilias. But if it was easy, everyone would do it,” he says with a smile.
And the ribs and the wrist, I ask? They are better, he says. Sykes hurt his ribs and suffered a small crack in his wrist during private testing at the start of the season in Australia. The ribs were the worst, he says. “It was difficult to try and relax on the bike, and especially breathe during the change in direction,” he says of the Phillip Island race. The 7-week break helped and the wrist was difficult during Aragon and Assen. “But now, it is back to normal. I occasionally get a strange sensation, but there is nothing to be worried about,” he says.
Strength training during the healing period was an issue. It was difficult to breathe to the maximum, he says. “But when I get off my bike, I still feel good, so that’s good for me.”
It seems obvious that the pressure is on, I say, both for the team and for Sykes. After all, Kawasaki had an incredible 2012 season – with definite highs and a terrible low after his teammate Joan Lascorz’s accident. But, the season finale saw Sykes become a championship contender losing out the top spot to Max Biaggi by a mere 0.5 points – the closest finish in SBK history. It is natural then that expectations are high this season. How is he dealing with it?
“I am very relaxed,” Sykes says. “I have worked very hard most of my life to get here. Kawasaki is a great place, as are the sponsors. The fact that I am a championship favourite is very humbling…I want to make it last for as long as possible.” Of course, Sykes adds with a smile, “There’s nothing like winning a race.” And 2013 promises to be a good championship. Yes, he admits, there should be more points to his name at this stage. But Assen was a good recovery. Monza will be a difficult round too, he says, as it is a more technical circuit.
Guim Roda, the team manager, and Biel Roda, the PR & marketing manager, walk in, just as we move on to the next question. It is obvious that there is an easy friendship there, as the two rib Sykes gently. Have you seen the fans outside? They are hundreds of them, all waiting for you, they say teasing him. You are keeping them waiting. Tom chuckles and turns red, just a bit.
“Seriously, there are a lot of them outside, all waiting for you,” I chime in, teasing him a little. “Really?” he says smiling. I nod and start laughing as Guim returns, a large bag in hand. “You can make two holes for your eyes here,” he tells Tom. “I have lots of those,” the 27-year-old from Yorkshire says.
It is obvious that he is used to the good-natured ribbing. It is also perhaps obvious that Sykes still can’t quite believe his popularity, especially in Italy.
“It’s unbelievable how many fans I have in Italy,” he says later. “I try and spend as much time as possible, with them.” Of course, it does get difficult to stop and meet the fans during Superpole and the race.
The road to success though hasn’t been easy, paved with a few bad decisions no doubt, but also a lot of support. His first motorcycle memory is when he was about 6 years old, riding around the local woodland on his motorbike. “I was young and enjoying myself. It was a hobby, and I continued to ride,” he says. Support and help came in the form of his grandfather Peter Brooks. “He believed in me and spent money, and gave me the opportunity,” Sykes says.
He moved to BSB and after impressing there, got his first ride in SBK with Yamaha Motor Italia and then Paul Bird Kawasaki, before joining the factory Kawasaki team. The first year was different, he says. “I was travelling a lot, there were different situations, cultures and people. I had a few difficult years in SBK, but I have become mentally very strong. Sure, it’s a shame that there have been missed opportunities. But I have become a better rider,” he adds.
It has been a rough road for Team Kawasaki as well. They are now on the cusp of success, with a bike that is worthy of championships. The turning point though was 2012, bringing numerous Superpoles – courtesy Sykes, and wins, of course.
But in 2011, the bike needed work. Sykes and the team did not have the luxury of having a previous model with a comfortable setting. “But now, we have found a good base setting for the Ninja. It is easy now and we are more relaxed,” he says. The statistics though are a testament to the hard work that has gone into making the Ninja competitive and race worthy.
Sykes never expected the success. “I think I am especially lucky that my hobby is now my job. I am grateful,” he says. “I never dreamed I would reach this stage. There has been a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifices.”
But it has been worth it. Ask Sykes for his inspiration, his racing idols and pat comes the reply. Mick Doohan for his style, he says and Carl Fogerty for his SBK dominance. But it is the 2008 SBK race at Donington that he remembers the most. He diced with the legendary Troy Bayliss and very nearly came out on top. “It was a close race, and a good fight,” remembers Sykes, who took second at the time.
It is back to the present soon though. The fans are waiting outside and there are two more days of pure madness and adrenalin left at Monza. It is probably time to wrap up the interview. I have to ask though, before we call it a day: What are your thoughts on the India round?
“I am looking forward to it,” Sykes says. “I have heard good things about the circuit, but I know only what I have seen on TV.” Then there is the fact that his favourite food is Thai and Indian. “So, I am looking forward to traditional Indian food, especially the traditional Indian curry,” he says. Talk of food is enough to call it a day at the racing box.
Sunday comes around soon enough. It is no surprise that Sykes is on the pole. True to form, he has broken a record at Monza, scoring the fastest lap at 1’41.223 and added to his Superpole and Tissot watch collection.
The riders line up on the grid. It is almost like the way Sykes described it earlier. “It’s like the calm before the storm,” he said then. His Oakley sunglasses are on, as his music. He is focused and determined. There are two races. The podium has come calling.
NOTE: Tom Sykes took a 2nd in a close race finish, with Marco Melandri taking 1st and Eugene Laverty 3rd at the end of the first race. Round two saw Laverty at 1st, Melandri at 2nd with Sykes taking the final spot ahead of Sylvain Guintoli.
A special thank you to Silvia Sanchez, the Kawasaki Racing Team and the SBK press office for organizing the interview with Tom Sykes.